I read an article the other day that stated that the United States is one of the only countries in the world where the idea of becoming successful is considered a bad thing. It doesn’t matter if you started out with nothing, scratched and fought your way to the top, and clawed for every dollar you earned. The fact that you now possibly make a good living makes you the target of those who don’t have what you do or haven’t put in the effort to get where they envision where they should be.
Everyone in life starts at rock bottom. Everyone in life starts in a place where their slate is blank. It doesn’t matter if they start out rich or poor. Many rich people in history have squandered their riches and have become homeless. Many poor people in history have worked hard to bring them out of squalor and extremely negative circumstances.
There is an amazing story of my great grandfather that I share with friends and family from time to time. It’s been told to me in pieces over the years. It is one of the reasons why I respect some of the people I do in life and why when I look in the mirror, no matter how hard life gets, I know it will never be as bad as my great grandfather had it.
Right around the end of the American Civil War, Italy was not the country we know it now. It was a mix of several kingdoms, each with their own dialect of Italian. Some kingdoms were wealthy and some were not so wealthy. The area where my great grandfather, Dominic Visconti grew up, was not wealthy by a long shot. He grew up in the mountains east of Naples. There were no paved roads and not much infrastructure like we are used to. The community was mostly made up of farmers and shop keepers. There were also no police to keep the law. Everything was handled by the citizenry.
Dominic’s parents were very simple people, but they yearned for something more. They were not getting by the way that they dreamed. They both worked tremendously hard to get by. At the age of ten, Dominic also had siblings that needed to be taken care of as well, so they all pulled together to get by as best as possible. Since he was the oldest, he had to help out the most.
Being a child back then was not the way we picture being a child today. Education was not a mandatory thing. There were no such thing as child labor laws. As soon as you were able to, especially in poor villages, you went to work in the fields or shops. You helped with feeding the family. Playing was a luxury, and if you were lucky, only happened after all of the day’s work was done. You were considered more of a small sized adult rather than a child. Dominic grew up in an environment just like that.
During this time the government where Dominic lived was holding a lottery. The winners of the lottery would receive tickets for travel on a ship to the United States. Dominic’s father entered this lottery hoping that he would be able to win so he could bring his family to a place that had more opportunity than what they had where they lived.
After waiting a while, possibly weeks or months, Dominic’s father found out that he was one of the people who won the lottery. I’m sure he was very excited as he travelled to receive the anticipated tickets to his family’s new country. However, when he returned to tell his wife, he had to reveal some disappointing news. The government was only able to give him one ticket. Only one person could go.
Dominic’s father and mother discussed at length who would go. If Dominic’s father went to America, his mother would be left alone with all the children. It would be difficult for her to work and raise them all by herself. There was no one around that would be willing to help her. They all had their own families to look after.
Dominic’s mother couldn’t go either. She could not leave her husband and children to fend for themselves. Her husband worked terribly long hours and the children were too small to take care of themselves. Dominic was just ten years old, but couldn’t work and help raise his sibling along with his father. It just wasn’t going to work.
In the end they decided that there was only one thing they could do. Dominic would have to go.
The story goes that on the dock, before Dominic boarded the ship, his mother and father pinned his ticket to his jacket. They gave him big hugs and kisses and waved goodbye as his ship sailed into the distance.
At ten years old Dominic spent about a week aboard a ship filled with other immigrants from Italy going to America by himself. He didn’t know anyone and had no idea where he was going or how he was going to survive. My family doesn’t know the story of his voyage, but we know it must have been difficult and lonely.
Upon arrival to the United States Dominic was processed through Ellis Island. From there he was released into the streets of New York City to fend for himself. Somehow he found himself living at the Five Points. The same Five Points that is seen in the movie Gangs of New York.
During his stay in New York Dominic learned English. He became a runner for the political organization known as Tammany Hall, which, for the most part, controlled New York City. He also might have worked as a runner for “Boss” William Maegar Tweed himself, although, that is only speculation.
As Dominic grew older he worked on the railroad. He performed manual labor that was extraordinarily difficult. His hands grew like iron and his body like stone.
At every turn he faced discrimination. At that time Italians weren’t as accepted as they are now. They were considered second class citizens, not only because of the color of their skin, but also because they were Catholic. The majority of the American population were protestant and didn’t hold Catholics in high regard. Through this he pressed on.
He saved as much as he could so that he could one day return to Italy. He wanted to show people just how far along he had come. He also wanted to give back to his parents who had taken the chance on sending him away, not because they wanted to see him go, but wanted to see him succeed. Dominic also thought about his community and what he could do for others, as well as his siblings who he missed very much.
In the end, Dominic finally returned to his little town. He got to see his parents. He got to see his siblings. He told of his adventures of crossing the Atlantic and his time in New York City. He also showed them how full his pockets were.
Through all that he had been through, from the time he was put on the ship that left from Italy when he was ten years old, Dominic worked hard and saved enough to purchase the entire town.
You might say that it’s unbelievable that he would have been able to perform such a feat, but it did happen. The people of the town were also very grateful.
Through him, over time, he kept the town from famine by helping them with the storage of what they could save from previous harvests. He assisted local businesses and made sure that people could trade their goods safely. He lived to the ripe old age of 99 being respected by all those in his little town.
I never met my great grandfather, Dominic. I used to hear my aunts, uncles and my mother speak about him from time to time. No story was ever a bad one. When they spoke about him you could hear the love and admiration they all had, because without him, they all would not have been there.
Through knowing of him in this way I realized at an early age it’s not a bad thing to help yourself. It’s a good thing to work hard and succeed. It’s a good thing to fill your pockets through your endeavors. It gives you the ability to go back and help those who could not help themselves.
There are so many times I’ve read that people have disrespect for those that came from their own communities and broke free only to make it to the heights of success beyond their wildest expectations. They are called sell outs. They are told they don’t deserve what they earned and must give it away to those who didn’t even take the chance or have the drive to get up and succeed on their own. They don’t realize that some of these same people already give back. They give to charity or form charities of their own. They speak of where they came from and what it took to get to where they are. They set themselves up as an example that if you try and keep pushing that you too can be just like them.
The people that rise should not be disdained. They should not be outcast. They should be celebrated as a beacon to others that success can be achieved.
Helping yourself is not selfish. It’s not done to spite others. It is done in spite of the circumstances in which you are born.
Those that help themselves do so to become something more than what society expects them to be. They rise. They climb. The crawl and scrape. And when they return they use what they’ve earned to raise families, give back to communities, and to pay it forward. It’s maybe not done in a way like my great grandfather who bought his entire town and gave people hope on a grand scale. Sometimes it’s done through the minutest of perceived efforts.
Those that help themselves first are then able to help others. Those that save themselves first are able to save others. Help yourself so that you can inspire someone to help themselves as well. Be their hero so that one day they can be someone else’s.